BUDAPEST - Hungarian police said yesterday afternoon they had detained a Hungarian citizen of Palestinian origin who planned to blow up a Jewish museum in Budapest, as well as two Syrian men suspected of links to the plot.
But police said there was no connection between the arrests and the state visit by President Moshe Katsav, who is set to inaugurate the Holocaust Memorial Center in Budapest tomorrow, to mark the 60th anniversary of the day Hungary's pro-Nazi regime started rounding up Jews to confine them in ghettos.
Police Lieutenant Colonel Attila Petofi, deputy director of the National Bureau of Investigation, told a news conference there was substantial information that the 42-year-old Palestinian-born dentist planned to blow up "a Jewish museum." He did not say whether it was the new Holocaust museum, as officials had earlier suggested, prompting reports based mostly on rumor that the bombing plot was meant as an assassination attempt on Katsav's life.
"There is no connection whatsoever between the Israeli president's visit and the particular police action taken today," Laszlo Salgo, chief of the national police, told a news conference yesterday.
But a spokeswoman at the president's Jerusalem office said earlier in the day that Katsav had been told he was targeted in the attack. But she also said the three-day state visit would continue as planned. "They're alright. That's what we're concerned about," she said of the president and his wife, Gila, who arrived in Hungary yesterday morning.
Katsav told reporters after a meeting with Hungarian President Ferenc Madl that he was aware of the police actions but was confident in the security arrangements for his protection.
"I trust in the Hungarian security forces and I trust in the Israeli security forces," Katsav said. "I jokingly told President Madl that it would be better if he stays three steps away from me."
During his visit, Katsav will also meet with Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy and the foreign minister. A number of meetings with leading Hungarian businessmen are also scheduled.
Police said the Palestinian suspect, a naturalized Hungarian citizen, was the spiritual leader of a small Islamic community in Budapest. The suspect, whose name was not released, was charged with being involved in "preparation for a terrorist attack," said Petofi. Police said they had also arrested two Syrian men. They said the Palestinian man had wanted to buy explosives from one of these two, and had wanted to commission the other to blow up the Jewish museum. The Syrian suspects were charged "with preparations for a crime against property," Petofi said, without elaborating.
Hungarian police officials said investigations leading to the arrest had revealed "no date named for the attack and no [named] target facility." But monitored phone calls of the suspect revealed he had asked acquaintances for explosives "to blow up a Jewish museum," said Petofi. "We do not yet know what the motives of the act were," he said. "We could not afford to wait ... for the preparations to turn into a real crime." The suspect began making phone calls in November to friends "to get explosives," said Petofi. On one occasion, "he asked an acquaintance to use the explosive to blow up a Jewish museum," he added.
The investigation has turned up no explosives or weapons so far, said police.
The museum Katsav is due to inaugurate tomorrow will be the first Holocaust museum in central Europe. Located on a narrow street in Budapest, the memorial center is built on the site of a pre-war synagogue that served as an internment camp for Jews during World War II. An estimated 600,000 Hungarians perished in the Holocaust, most of them Jews. French Finance Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who is of Hungarian descent, is also expected to attend the inauguration.
"More than a museum, this must be a place for learning, especially for the young who must not only know of the Holocaust but make it part of their lives so that they will never allow it to happen again," museum director Andras Daranyi said.
The museum is the fifth state-funded Holocaust museum in the world, according to its organizers, after ones in Jerusalem, Washington D.C., London and Berlin.
It will open with a temporary exhibition showing photographs of Hungarian victims arriving at Auschwitz from the northeastern village of Bilke, which is now part of Ukraine. In the courtyard, the names of those who perished in the Holocaust are put on a memorial wall. Some 40,000 names are known and new ones are added as research discovers the identities of the victims.
The museum has, however, been criticized in Hungary, which has eastern Europe's largest Jewish population, estimated at 60,000-100,000. Historians have said the museum should have been built in the countryside, where most of the Jews lived in pre-war times, or in the former area of the ghetto in the capital. The current location in a nondescript neighborhood with narrow streets not only lacks historical significance but is also difficult for cars and tourist buses to reach, critics charge.
But the most stinging criticism is that there will not be a permanent exhibition documenting the Holocaust in place at the opening and, some argue, there is not even enough space for it on site. "It's a slap in the face to the Holocaust and its victims," Laszlo Karsai, one of the museum's curators, told Nepszabadsag newspaper last month in protest of the limited space.
The museum's directors argue, however, that opening the museum even without a permanent exhibition was a moral obligation to educate Hungarians, for whom the participation of Hungary's collaborationist government in the deportations remains a sore topic.
"We want to be a springboard for debate in society about the Holocaust," Daranyi said.
The emphasis on education also resonates in Hungary, where the so-called "numerus clausus" law of 1920 restricting the admission of Jews to universities was the first anti-Jewish law passed in Europe ahead of the war. "How did this degenerate into deportations and murder 20 to 25 years after the first anti-Jewish law was enacted? And how come so few raised their voices against this?" asked Daranyi. "We don't want to give answers, we want to pose questions," he added.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now